Vulnerability Patching: A Resource Guide

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What is Vulnerability Patching and How Does it Differ from Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability patching is the short-term implementation of patches, which are pieces of code added to existing software to improve functionality or to remove vulnerabilities that have been flagged. Patches usually come from vendors of affected hardware or software and IT should apply them to an affected area in a timely manner.

Vulnerability management is a proactive and systematic approach to managing network security. It starts by checking an organization’s operating systems, software, applications, and network components to identify vulnerabilities or flaws that could allow a malicious user to gain access and cause harm. An organization could be exposed to a vulnerability whenever IT installs something new, updates an application, or something is downloaded.

The responsibility for vulnerability management typically falls on security teams while IT is responsible for patching and patch management. In some scenarios, the workflow is that security will scan and detect a vulnerability, create a ticket with IT, and wait for IT to apply the patch and then report the status back to security to close the loop. This often leads to significant time delays between vulnerability detection and remediation.

Understanding Vulnerability Scanning vs. Patching

Vulnerabilities are typically identified using a scanner or endpoint agent. As more enterprises migrate workloads and applications to the cloud, on-premises scanners are being replaced by cloud-based scanners. IT needs to analyze network scans and penetration test results, firewall logs, or vulnerability scan results. Scans provide an understanding of known vulnerabilities or anomalies, which could indicate a malware attack or malicious event has occurred.

This doesn’t solve the problem, however. The next steps are to verify the identified vulnerabilities and determine whether they could be exploited on servers, applications, networks, or other systems. Then the vulnerability needs to be patched if it poses a risk. However, not all vulnerabilities are created equal. Some do not pose a risk because they are not loaded to memory. In addition to scanning, is important to have the tools in place to understand which vulnerabilities are actually exploitable in your environment.

What Should a Vulnerability Patching Policy Include?

A vulnerability patching policy governs how you approach the process. The goal is to reduce security risks by ensuring that technical vulnerabilities are identified and reviewed quickly, risks are evaluated, and patches are applied within a reasonable timeframe. The policy needs to cover all the devices and software on your network, when they were last patched, a database of known vulnerabilities, and a patching schedule. Applying a patch management policy across the organization can help you stay on top of things and keep systems safe.

The Challenges with Vulnerability Patching

Even though patching is important, it can introduce complexity and challenges. These include limited resources, technical debt, and decentralized infrastructure. Another issue is that even after vulnerabilities are patched, exploitation can continue.

Defining the scope of a vulnerability is also often difficult to assess, in part, because of a lack of visibility.

Containers that have applications running inside them can also hamper patching efforts. Because they facilitate the movement of software or applications from one device or environment to another, using containers has many benefits. However, this functionality also increases their attack surface. As a result, it is important to have patches work effectively with container-based systems and applications.

Personal mobile devices are used more frequently now that working from home has become firmly entrenched since the pandemic began. Organizations should have security processes in place since these devices can easily introduce malicious software onto the network. Patching software should be able to handle new devices coming onto the network, and IT needs to determine if these devices carry any applications with vulnerabilities.

Another challenge is that sometimes there is reluctance to apply patches because it can cause downtime, introduce new vulnerabilities when deployed, and fail to address the situation.

Lastly, another challenge is applying patches strategically. As mentioned, security teams need visibility into which vulnerabilities are actually exploitable. Many vulnerabilities pose no risk because they are not loaded to memory. Invest in tools that will allow you to determine which bugs pose a risk so you can be smart about patching.

Vulnerability Patching Best Practices

Vulnerability patching and patch management should not be an afterthought because they play a critical role in keeping your organization secure. It can make all the difference in determining whether you’re vulnerable to malicious attacks.

It’s important to know if your patch management software covers all your systems, programs, and applications, and whether you have the right software to help simplify and streamline the process.

Vulnerability best practices include:

  • Inventory all devices, services, and dependencies in your IT infrastructure. This should include the operating systems you’re using, what versions they are, and all custom and third-party applications. All security systems in use should be included as well along with their specifications. 
  • Prioritize systems for patching so you know which have the highest risk or are most sensitive to the organization. It is important to be methodical in your approach because it ensures that you won’t be applying patches to lower priority systems first – or to bugs that do not require patching because they will not be loaded to memory.
  • Apply patches as soon as possible (if they are needed). Operating system patches should be deployed immediately when they are released since they can have serious and widespread effects.
  • Establish a regular timeline for patches that are not mission-critical. This will minimize disruption to the business because deploying patches can slow network performance.
  • Ideally, maintenance should be done overnight or on weekends when the least number of people are on the network. You should also set up an alert system so that if a patch is applied when IT isn’t available and there are any issues, someone will be notified.
  • Regularly scan and audit your systems. This ensures vulnerabilities will be flagged that may have been missed the first time. The longer security holes stay open, the more likely it is the organization will be vulnerable to an attack. Patch management should be a continuous process with regular and ongoing scanning.
  • Use an automated tool. Deploying software to manage and maintain your patches and updates can significantly reduce IT’s workload, and in many cases will be much more accurate and effective than trying to do things manually.

The Bottom Line on Vulnerability Patching

Vulnerability patching and patch management are critical for protecting a business because cyber attackers are becoming more and more sophisticated. Most businesses use several applications, operation systems, and cloud-based services and infrastructure, which means there is a wider attack surface.

Having good vulnerability patch management could make the difference between things running smoothly — and a massive data breach — which could bring your operations to a screeching halt.

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